Physicists Working in Industry, Two Views
These contributions are reprinted with the authors'
permission from the October 8, 1996 Women in Physics email discussion group (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I have been working in the aerospace industry (Hughes)
for over 8 years, starting only weeks after graduating with
my Bachelor's degree in physics. While working, I took
advantage of industry fellowship programs and obtained my
Master's degree in Physics in 1993.
First of all, the difference between the academic community
and the aerospace industry is very large (and not just pay
scale). They differ in their objectives, their philosophy
regarding employees, their ability to help you achieve
personal goals, and pay. Both industry and academia have
their advantages and disadvantages in both categories.
Personally, I prefer industry's constant exposure to new
technologies and the team atmosphere versus the academic"publish or perish" stereotype.
Second, I will tell you right away, that you will either like
working in industry or detest it. The only way to tell is to
try it, and that means applying for jobs and interviewing.
Third, as a physicist in industry, I do not use my physics
training all the time. I have certainly used what I learned to
solve problems encountered (mechanics, E&M,...), but I do
not do research (some places do! Ball Aerospace in Boulder,
Colorado, for instance). One of the primary advantages of
being a physicist in industry is that your physics
background exposes you to so many fields that you can
quickly perform on many different types of tasks. This"non-specialized" performance is becoming more and more
valued as competition in the market increases.
Many physicists in industry, such as myself, become "firefighters":
because of their diversified knowledge basis, they
can attack just about any problem and help get programs
back on track. I have fought technical problems, hardware
problems, software problems, and even administrative
problems. I assure you, I am never bored!
Because of demonstrated abilities in a number of areas, I no
longer fight fires on a regular basis. I currently serve as a
Programs Manager, Technical Manager,and Business Area
Exec. I fight fires in my spare time just for fun!
Kathy Kirby works for Hughes in Colorado
In regards to the query about non-academic career tracks, my
own experience might be helpful to others considering
different kinds of careers with a physics background. I
attended Columbia University (undergrad and grad) in
physics as a "second career" of sorts. I had previously
completed an M.A. in a liberal arts field, and worked as a
journalist, before returning to school at CU in 1980. I
ultimately left with a Master's degree in physics, as I
was tired of school, discouraged, and felt there were many
options out there with my level of training. I ultimately
came to Washington D.C. as I believed (and still do) there is
a real need for scientists who have good communication
skills to work in the science policy arena, and to help
bridge the gap between the scientific world and the lay
Non-scientists, particularly legislators in Congress, need to
become better informed about technical issues, and I
think those with a good science background could consider
possible careers in this area. I currently work for a
government consulting firm, PRC Inc., where I provide
technical/scientific support for the Defense Advanced Project
Research Agency. I use my physics background a lot, and
also have the chance to write, which I enjoy, explaining
technical ideas to non-scientists.
For those who are interested, I would suggest taking a look
at the Encyclopedia of Associations in the library, to see
what organizations might employ those with a science
background, for programmatic kinds of positions. Other
avenues are government consulting firms, which provide
technical support to DOD, EPA, DOT, etc. Your school's
career counseling center should have info. on these. I would
also suggest networking as much as possible with
organizations like AWIS, SWE, WISE, etc.
The above is rather sketchy, but I would be glad to answer
more specific questions for anyone who is interested.
Nancy Forbes works for PRC, Inc. in Arlington, VA
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